Good Girls and Pink TypewritersThe Hits and Misses of “Good Girls Revolt”

On new Amazon show Good Girls Revolt, women struggle for respect equal to their male colleagues. Sound familiar? The show is based on the real lives of a group of women at Newsweek who sued in 1970 for the right to become reporters, but what struck me while watching Good Girls Revolt was how, in many ways, things haven’t changed. Men hold over two-thirds of the supervisory posts at major newspapers, and it’s rare to see women helming the ship—when they are, they’re subjected to the sexist double standards that Jill Abramson says forced her out at the New York Times.

Let’s get one thing clear: Good Girls Revolt, which dropped last Friday on the site’s streaming service, is not well made. It’s formulaic, awkwardly staged, homogenous, and dull, from the obligatory drugged-out party at the Chelsea Hotel to dialogue so bland that the viewer almost immediately forgets it. But its story highlights an important shift in the media landscape. As researcher and wannabe reporter Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson) and her friends fight for bylines, tired of living in the shadows, they unwittingly illustrate not just the unchanging landscape of sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, but some significant cultural transitions in journalism.

Few television shows—especially those attempting to ride the nostalgia train, as this one does with ferocity—focus on the lives of women. This could be another Call the Midwife, a show that revels in building rich, multifaceted female characters and delving deep into lives we rarely see on television. That Good Girls Revolt doesn’t soar but feels rather slow and sloppy is frustrating.

Throughout the first season, which feels unnecessarily long at ten episodes thanks to its glacial pace and snooze-worthy plotting, the hamfisted attempts at dabbling in social issues were supremely awkward—the Black Panthers get a few throwaway lines and a white savior cover on News of the Week, only one of the Black women in the office appears to speak, and an illegal abortion is obtained at an upscale home in a nice neighborhood and a poor little rich girl gets a brief awakening. For a show that revolves around issues, this is a real problem. But Good Girls Revolt made it clear that it, and viewers, were here for one thing: The fight of a majority white staff at a newspaper to stand up and be recognized. In real life, the suit was spearheaded by Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Black ACLU attorney who led the suit (and went on to a slew of other civil rights accomplishments). In the show, Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant) is still a fiery ACLU attorney, balancing the lawsuit and a pregnancy, but she gets only brief screen time because this is a story about the plucky white girls in the newsroom. Unfortunately, legal and media sausage-making can be boring stuff, so the show attempts to make up for it with lots of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and that just made things even clunkier. I certainly could have done without the scene where goodie-two-shoes Jane Hollander (Anna Camp) is seduced to the dark side when fellow “girls” of the newsroom pressure her to toke up with them, for example, and one writer’s awkward roll around with her boss in the back of his car is excruciating.

But let’s talk sausage, because that’s what we’re here for. In the newsroom of News of the Week, the boys write the stories and the girls “research” them, which often involves substantial rewrites. They’re also fetching coffee, making copies, and dodging grabby hands while they’re at it. The newsroom is treated like a holding pen for women who the male bosses assume want to have a lark before settling into marriage. But many of these women want more. They want to be reporters, to tell stories, and to have their bylines appear in the magazine. When the ragtag crew bands together to generate an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, they do so knowing it will change the world.

Women are still a big part of the often invisible army of fact checkers (yes, those still exist), researchers, assistants, proofreaders, and (mostly unpaid) interns that make media function. In 2014, 63 percent of bylines across the top newspapers, networks, and television stations went to men. This is a man’s world—and publications headed by women tend to be viewed as “special interest” rather than just “news” or “commentary.” Magazines like Mother Jones, a bastion of leftist journalism with Clara Jeffery heading editorial and Monika Bauerlein as CEO, are the exception, not, as they should be, the rule.

Yet, Julia M. Klein at the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that journalism is on the verge of becoming a “pink-collar ghetto.” How, in a climate where men remain dominant, is journalism turning “pink collar”?

It’s a shift that’s happening as media itself undergoes changes, devaluing and consequently becoming feminized, because this is what happens when things lose social capital. Modern-day examples of News of the World and its ilk are struggling in a landscape dominated by demands for free content, an unwillingness to tolerate any attempts at monetization, and disdain for the media. The women who fought so hard in 1970 to give women access to the media couldn’t have predicted what happened next, as women started entering the field in droves, engineered many of the changes that are shaping the industry, and then watched it fall apart around them. Women are the majority in journalism school, according to Klein, following the paths they’re told to trace to pursue their dreams—but pay is falling, leaving many in the media struggling to survive.

The women who fought for the right to be reporters in the 1970s are not to blame for what happened to media. To the contrary: Their victory laid the groundwork that women in U.S. media today thrive on and relied upon to build their careers. What Good Girls Revolt highlights instead, for those reading between the lines, is that nearly 50 years after women fought for a pretty basic right—to be heard—the same pernicious sexism that was a ubiquitous part of their lives is still omnipresent. That sexism determines who gets stories, how people are treated, and how perception of the industry shifts as women make inroads.

The problem with media isn’t that there are more women in it, but that sexism still mediates what’s “important” and what isn’t, and that as journalism becomes culturally feminized, it’s losing value. Men reap what they can from it and leave the dregs to women, and we all lose.

It’s a pity to see a show about women in journalism written and created primarily by women—like Dana Calvo, the show’s creator—that in a way feels every bit as socially regressive as Mad Men, a show about the high-flying men of the same era. That is perhaps the sharpest reflection, and indictment, of the media landscape, because even in a show ostensibly about women, much of the drama is actually about men: Who is sleeping with whom, who is unhappy with her husband, who feels guilty about springing a civil rights complaint on her male boss. As with the male-dominated media Good Girls Revolt is supposed to be criticizing, the show rarely passes the Bechdel test, and it certainly isn’t inclusive of the rich racial politics of the era.

by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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